The Triune God

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Why do people not believe in Jesus Christ? There are - as social scientists are now showing - measurable benefits in believing and then in living for Jesus Christ. So why do people not believe?

Some people say they don't believe for intellectual reasons. People of other faiths, particularly Muslims, say that there are intellectual reasons for not believing, associated with the doctrine of the Trinity - the teaching that God is one and God is three - our subject for this morning. But before you automatically believe that, remember Aldous Huxley. He famously said on one occasion:

"I had motives for not wanting the world to have a meaning, consequently assumed that it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption ... For myself, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation, sexual and political."

That is nothing if not honest - and true. Jesus said in John's Gospel chapter 3 verse 19:

Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.

Jesus is saying that when people reject him, the light, it is because something in their life or in their heart is not right. He is regularly rejected not because of intellectual reasons, but because of moral and spiritual reasons. However, all that doesn't mean we don't address the intellectual problems and reasons people give for not believing. As you pray and as you seek to share God's word rationally with other people, so the Holy Spirit works to bring conviction and to open blind eyes. The Psalmist says: "the unfolding of [God's] words gives light" (Ps 119.130).

So this morning we are going to think briefly about what for many outside the church is a serious problem - the fact that Christians believe in aTriune God. And I want us to think first about THE MYSTERY and secondly about what I've called THE EXPERIENCE.


First, THE MYSTERY

In verse 12 of John 3, Jesus made it clear that there are problems in speaking about "heavenly things":

I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?

Our God is a transcendent God, the almighty God, the God who, therefore, is beyond our finite understanding. In the Old Testament God says through the prophet Isaiah:

As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts (Isaiah 55.9).

And in the New Testament Paul says "the mystery of godliness is great," in 1 Timothy 3.16. He then gives what looks like a simple credal statement:

[Beyond all question, the mystery of godliness is great:] He [Jesus] appeared in a body, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory.

And there were other credal statements in the early centuries. These were drawn up as Christians faced various heretical groups - especially those who denied the deity of Christ. These Christians wanted to rule out errors that contradicted the plain teaching of the bible. The Nicene Creed that we have just said was one of these creeds. In it we confess that Christ is "God from God, light from light, true God from true God". The Athanasian Creed was another. And it speaks about the Trinity directly:

"Now this is the Catholic [meaning "universal"] faith, that we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in unity, without confusing the persons or dividing the substance."

It goes on at length to show that the unity of the one God is complex. There are not three roles played by one person (that is the heresy of modalism); nor are there three gods (that is tritheism). No! The one God ("he") is also "they". It is a mystery. But the mystery is because of the facts. And the facts are that God himself was born in Bethlehem and walked and taught in Galilee and died on a cross and rose again on Easter Day in Jerusalem. It was not somebody else, a different being named Jesus. But it was God the Son who was born of Mary and not God the Father. The Old Testament makes it quite clear that there is only one God and he is to be worshipped and prayed to. But the New Testament makes it quite clear that Jesus who prayed to his Father is himself prayed to by his disciples. Without any feeling of inconsistency these monotheistic Jews believed Jesus to be divine. And then the divine Holy Spirit was given afresh to the church, in symbolic form by Christ to the disciples on Easter evening and in fullness at Pentecost. So Jesus taught his disciples to baptize "in the name [not in the names but in the name] of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matt 28.19). And the apostles assume that God is triune. Paul says, in a very familiar prayer:

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all (2 Cor 13.14).

We do not fully understand all this. But there is so much that we do not understand about the nature of God - his eternity, the fact that he is all-knowing and his providence and sovereign ordering of history and of you and me.

And the bible shows that the one eternal God is eternally both singular and plural. The Father, Son and Spirit are personally distinct yet essentially one. That is why, as we have said, tritheism (belief in three gods who are not one) is wrong; and so is unitarianism (belief in one God with Jesus being just a good man). Bishop Ryle once said: "This is a great mystery! Happy is he who can receive it as a little child, without attempting to explain it."

You see, to try to explain it and to dispel the mystery by human reason will falsify it. The proper response to the mystery and the reality of God is not to explain but to worship and humbly submit, as we heard in our Epistle.

And no one understood this better than Archbishop Cranmer - he who composed the 1662 Book of Common Prayer for the Church of England. For when you come to the set readings in that old book for Trinity Sunday at the Communion Service,do you know what he selected? The readings we had this morning - with that Gospel reading from John 3 - Jesus' meeting with Nicodemus. Cranmer knew that the reality of the Trinity was not just some formula you bring out when you meet Jehovah's Witnesses on the door step (or their equivalent in his day).

No! He knew that the Trinity was the way of describing the three distinct persons in the Godhead who work together in unity for your salvation and mine. For the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit has each contributed to our salvation. And to experience that saving work is to know something at first hand of the mystery of the Trinity. How, therefore, we should praise our Triune God. The Trinity is not a cold doctrine but the reality of a God who wants to bring change for our good. You can see that if you will now look at this incident with Nicodemus in John 3 and what Jesus is inviting him (and everybody else) to experience.


Secondly, THE EXPERIENCE

And the focus here is on the kingdom of God. What is that? It is where or when God is king! It is where and when he rules and reigns over nations and over individuals. That will fully be seen only when Christ returns. In the meantime God is reigning but his rule is not always acknowledged or accepted. Then there is trouble.

If you ignore God's rule in any area of life - for example, in the area of truth telling or sexual morals - sooner or later you will suffer. Poor old Peter Mandelson seems to be learning that lesson. And Jesus came saying that the kingdom of God was coming with his coming. People, therefore, should follow him and submit to him. Then (even in the present) you can experience God's rule in a new way and experience a totally new relationship with God.

Now Jewish people like Nicodemus, whom we read about in John chapter 3, already knew a bit about the kingdom of God. And so do most people. People, as the opinion polls tell us, have intuitions of God. And they know something of God's ideals for life. The trouble is they can't experience them. The world as it "is" is not the world as it "ought" to be. That is indisputable. So what do people need? They need two things - one is the truth and two is a way out. And here in John 3 we see God the Son revealing the truth; and we learn about the God the Holy Spirit providing a way out.

First - the Truth.

One of the great works of God the Son is to reveal the truth - the truth about men and women, and also the truth about God. Here you have Jesus doing just that. In verse 3 he says: "I tell you the truth"; in verse 5 he repeats: "I tell you the truth". He was indicating that people must not only hear but also heed what he is saying.

And what is he saying? He is saying that the problem, fundamentally, is that men and women are spiritually blind because they are spiritually dead. As a physical corpse can't see the world around, so a spiritual corpse can't see the truth of God. That is the clear implication of verse 3:

Jesus declared, "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again."

And that is his basic thesis. As he says in verse 6, everyone has natural human life, "flesh gives birth to flesh". But the fact is that unless people are "born again" they have no spiritual life - naturally they are spiritually blind and spiritually dead. Verse 6 (again) - it is God "the Spirit [who] gives birth to Spirit". And Jesus is emphatic in verse 3 - he says "no one can see unless he is born again". That is to say, all need the new birth, Nicodemus included.

What was Nicodemus? He was famous - he was, verse 1, "a member of the Jewish ruling council". He was intelligent - he wouldn't have been on the council otherwise. And he was religious. Verse 1 (again), he "was a man of the Pharisees". So you can be famous, intelligent and religious and here in this church! But unless you are born again you are spiritually blind and spiritually dead. That is the blunt truth Jesus is asserting. Who needs to hear and heed that truth this morning?

But secondly there is a Way Out.

And that is the gospel. The way out spoken about in verses 5-8 is the work of God the Holy Spirit:

Jesus answered, "I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, 'You must be born again.' 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit."

Jesus is probably alluding to Ezekiel 36.25-27 that Nicodemus would have known. That is why Jesus says to Nicodemus, verse 7, "you should not be surprised at my saying, 'You must be born again'." You see, God had said through Ezekiel the prophet:

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.

Jesus is saying there needs to be cleansing and new life. Being "born of water" refers to cleansing and being born of "the Spirit" refers to the new heart or new life which results in a spiritual transformation.

You say, "when that happens, will there be some electric experience? Are you expected to roll around in the aisles or whatever? What happens when you are born of the Spirit?" Well, look at verse 8:

The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.

Jesus is there saying it is like the wind blowing. Like the wind blows around in all sorts of different ways, so it is with the Holy Spirit's working. That is why people's experiences differ. So what matters is not a "conversion" but "convertedness".

God the Holy Spirit works in the lives of some people from a very early age. In the bible that was the case with Samuel, John the Baptist and Timothy. But for many it is not until much later - when they are, say, of student age. A few are converted in old age. Someone told me on Thursday about their wife's Grandmother. She had been converted just before she died. Her district nurse had led her to Christ. Yes, some people are born again dramatically and suddenly, like the apostle Paul: with some it is more gradual. And some have great "feelings" of awe or of love for God, or of conviction of sin: others don't have those initial feelings.

But whatever the method of working, that the Holy Spirit has been working will be clear, in the same way as it is clear the wind is blowing. You hear it. You are aware of its effects. So if there are no effects of the Holy Spirit in a person's life - some at any rate of that fruit of the Spirit you read about in Galatians 5.22-23 -

... love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control ...

you have to ask questions.


I must conclude.

You say, "this is all very well, and all very interesting. But how do you get from theory to actual experience?" Perhaps there is someone here this morning and you are saying, "Yes, I want to be born again. If I am honest, I see that Jesus Christ is speaking exactly to my situation. But how do I proceed?" That was really Nicodemus' question in verse 9:

How can this be?

Jesus replies by referring to an incident from Israelite history. Jesus says, verse 14:

Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.

Jesus is alluding to his coming death by crucifixion - a death that was, as he later said, "for the life of the world" (John 6.51).

It was a death ordained from eternity. It was the payment of your debt and mine - for our sins. When Jesus died on the cross our sins were laid on him, so that we might be free and be his redeemed people. That is what this Communion service celebrates.

But what did the people who were dying of snake bites in the desert have to do? They simply had to look towards the snake on the pole. Jesus is saying that is a picture of what is now needed. You need to look to him if you want cleansing and new life.

And note this: Jesus did not say to Nicodemus that "eternal life" is for just anyone. He said it was for "everyone who believes in him" (verse 15). Belief, or faith, in Christ is the key. And note also that this faith is not the new life. You don't have to be good or "re-newed" before you can believe.

No! Faith is simple trust in a loving saviour. It is the hand of a drowning man in the hand of his rescuer. Yes, faith must be followed by new life. But you don't start with new life but with faith in Christ.

That is the good news.

To sum up. The Trinity is a mystery. But its truth is confirmed by the experience of the new birth that is a work of God the Son and God the Holy Spirit to bring us into the kingdom of God the Father.

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